Utah Jazz’s ascent to NBA’s elite fueled by lingering playoff disappointment

Following their latest postseason ouster, the Jazz doubled down on offseason preparation with one goal taking root: “Our mind is stuck on a championship.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward Royce O'Neale (23) takes the ball to the hoop, as Boston Celtics center Daniel Theis (27) defends, in NBA action between the Utah Jazz and the Boston Celtics, at Vivint Arena, on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021.

There have been and will continue to be numerous statistical and anecdotal analyses of the Utah Jazz’s 3-point proficiency, their newfound comfort in attacking switching-style defenses, their penchant for funneling drives into Rudy Gobert while his perimeter minions snuff out opposing shots beyond the arc.

These are all valid components in the team’s NBA- and franchise-best 20-5 start to this season, after all.

But they also overlook perhaps the most simple explanation: These Jazz are pissed off.

They are still upset they blew a 3-1 lead to Denver in the 2020 postseason. Still irate that Mike Conley’s 3-pointer at the final horn of Game 7 rimmed out. Still enraged at themselves for letting it come down to that. Still incensed that the Nuggets went on to become the NBA bubble’s beloved, scrappy overachievers. Still irked that such a talented team met such a profligate end.

And they have channeled all of that exasperation into ensuring it does not happen again.

“I really feel like we came back this year with a purpose,” Rudy Gobert said after Tuesday’s 122-108 victory over the Celtics. “I really feel like we have a chip on our shoulder, and we need that if we are going to do what we want to do this year.”

And lest there be any confusion about what exactly the All-Star center means by that …

“Our mind is stuck on a championship,” added Donovan Mitchell. “We’re not here to say, ‘Let’s just be in first and get the accolades that come with that.’ We’re trying to win the whole thing.”


When • Friday, 7 p.m.


To that end, Mitchell explained that he and his teammates treated this past offseason more seriously than any before. They trained harder, they did more studying, they spent more time on the court getting games in.

He cited teammate and buddy Royce O’Neale — presently averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks, and 3-point percentage as the fifth option in a loaded starting lineup — as an example of the team’s newfound commitment.

“You look at Royce, and he came in the best shape of his career this year. … He and I went to Miami and worked out three or four weeks straight. The things I saw him do, I haven’t seen him do in his four years,” Mitchell said. “Not to say he doesn’t work hard, but he took it to another level. I think that is where we saw the difference. We saw the work ethic take another leap.”

And they continue to do that, to seek out additional ways to get better.

Each time out on the court, Joe Ingles noted, is becoming a chance for them to discover something now which might improve them down the road.

“We keep learning along the way — different ways to win, different things [that] work for us. Every game, we figure out something that J.C. likes, or [how] we can get an easy shot for Bojan, or whatever it is,” he said. “And with the IQ of our team, you throw that in there with how smart our coaching staff is, it’s a pretty fun mix.”

Which doesn’t mean that lingering aggravation isn’t still roiling beneath the surface, driving everything they do.

“We’ve got a way longer-term goal in mind,” Ingles added, “which keeps us pretty focused.”

Coach Quin Snyder mentioned how “gratifying” it is to the team mold itself into one unconcerned with winning streaks or their place in the standings. Those are only important as a means to an end.

“The focus is really squarely on getting better,” Snyder said. “It’s a challenge to do that when you’re playing well, but there’s always room to improve — and these guys have really internalized that.”

So yes, the Jazz are aware that Tuesday’s game against Boston marked the beginning of “a big stretch we’ve got coming up,” as Mitchell put it. The Milwaukee Bucks are up next on Friday. The reigning Eastern Conference champion Heat follow. The East-leading Sixers are coming. Two road games against the Clippers await. The defending champion Lakers are hovering down the road.

That said …

“We’re not going to put too much emphasis on it. It’s not like we’re saying this is a make-or-break stretch for us,” Mitchell added. “… We’re not playing to be ready by February; we’re playing to be ready in [July]. That’s when we have to have our best.”